Hat-Trick, the London design agency, recently planned a beautifully inventive new identity for the Imperial War Museum. Naturally this meant that I had to get my arse down there to check it out, but by the time I got round to going the museum had closed for refurbishment.
Thankfully it reopened three weeks ago (at least temporarily – the upgrade will be completed next August). While cycling past I nipped in for what I intended to be a brief whizz around. Two hours later I emerged, covered in goosebumps and feeling more than a little emotional.
Upon entering the new-look museum you’re greeted by a huge gun turret to properly set the tone; the museum itself and surrounding park are great places alone. Inside what has now become a pretty bad-ass looking place, the ground floor begins with an account of the Allpress family’s wartime story. It’s easy to forget just how bleak things must have been in those days, especially after history lessons going in one ear and out the other. A quote on the wall reading “… we were all so anxious to stay alive that we just sort of carried on” (Nellie Allpress) particularly hit home, in a bizarrely bleak way. I was particularly interested in the design and advertising at the time, with plenty of Abram Games thrown in as expected. There was a huge push for resourcefulness and using what you already have.
One of my favourite items was the Squander Bug, a strange-looking creature by Phillip Boydell. Designed to look like Hitler, it inspired dislike and disapproval, encouraging people to think twice about spending money on things they didn’t need. It also made an ideal air rifle target.
A couple of stats on the wall also struck me – it seems that 60,595 British civilians (effectively the population of Guernsey) were killed by enemy action, and 2.25 million more were made homeless during the Blitz. There were some models of the bombs, which I’ve scaled against my cycle helmet (unless they were enlarged copies – I probably should have read the bumf!), which go some way to exaggerating the insanity and brutality of the war.
Upstairs was the “Secret War,” an exhibition all about the James Bondy stuff of the past 100 years. Secret dossiers, gadgets disguised in everyday objects (literally think of James Bond, it all happened), MI6, MI5, night vision goggles … they were all presented and written about in this space. The quote “it is easy to mistake spy fiction for reality…” runs true.
I skipped the second floor, which had a fun looking exhibit about Horrible Histories. I’d have been all over this as a kid, so for those with children, go there. Such visitors may wish to avoid the next level, however; as the title of this blog suggests, the holocaust exhibition lies ahead.
Starting with the Nazi propaganda, you work your way through a harrowing journey to end at a small scale model of Auschwitz. There’s an early exit for those who have had enough, as the exhibition is a lot to take in emotionally. It’s impossible to comprehend the scale of the genocide, but this made the atrocities more tangible than anything has managed before. At the end of the exhibit, you’re left with Edmund Burke quote; “For evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing”. Just before, there were some portrait photos of relatively normal-looking people. When you read the accounts of their lives, you realise they were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and even enjoyed and boasted about their jobs. Astonishing!
On the top floor is The Lord Ashcroft Gallery of extraordinary heroes – a good way to lighten the mood before exit. I nipped round the shop at the end and saw these two books, The Plane Spotter’s Guide and The Tank Spotter’s Guide. I’m in no position to judge but that seems like a much more interesting pastime than checking out the 19:30 train from Waterloo to Woking and such. Sorry for rambling on, but be sure to check out the museum. It’s fascinating, disturbing and moving.
In other news a WWII bomb was blown up off the coast of Guernsey at the weekend. Boom!